by Roderick Lim Banda on 17/10/12 at 8:00 am
It is an imperative that every child in Africa should learn to program software. Our children are failing in maths and science because these are complex human abstracts and they have no references or hooks to understand them.
In a recent TEDx Cape Town talk, I advocated the use of software programming in all schools as a way of developing mental models and references for more complex subjects such as maths and science.
Software languages is precisely that … a language. It can be taught as a language just like any other spoken language. The difference is that it is a machine language and contains not complex but very simple and basic logic. For instance, teaching a child to assign a value to a variable provides a reference for more complex maths. Some of the fundamentals of software programming such as writing if-else statements and conditional loops can be taught earlier as a language function to build references for logical and abstract thinking.
Maths and science are a prerequisite for software programming when in fact it should be the other way around. While there is much discussion about the poor state of maths and science, we are not discussing what the potential pathways are to improving the situation and outcome. In fact, if we do not understand how to create these pathways, it is likely that we will adopt policies and interventions that will likely worsen the situation and that is what has happened in the last 10 to 15 years.
Government policy interventions and implementation have created an education system in South Africa that does not sufficiently provide the foundations for the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. I witnessed this change as a parent when my youngest son was part of the experiment to teach kids to memorize words instead of learning to construct them letter by letter. And again when his initial interest in maths was replaced by discouragement because the foundations were crammed and not sufficiently covered.
Most parents who were fortunate enough to afford it, were compelled to send their children to do private supplementary classes in maths and science. This is for kids coming from middle class and more well to do families and communities. The situation in poorer communities as we know is appalling. The problem is that while we talk about improving maths and science, we simply do not have a focused plan and pathway to improving the situation.
In a comment posted on Bolelang Rakeepile’s Facebook discussion regarding my TEDx talk on “African Software Factories”, Prof Derek Keats shared his blog months earlier entitled “A tweet reminds me that we MUST teach Computer Science at school again in South Africa.” I would recommend reading this and have provided the link.
Derek further commented that, programming should be a 21st Centuryskill.He also suggested teaching software programming fundamentals to all and a more advanced version for potential software engineers and future professionals. But more importantly, that whatwe should NOT be doing is teaching web browsing and word processing, even worse – linking it to particular company’s software – and making it a school subject.
My youngest son who was taught to memorize words rather than construct them had problems with reading and studying since. At the age of 12 I taught him programming and how to build a computer. It was a major turning point and while he is still playing catch up, he is improving. Last week he was just short of a 70 for a CAT test. He questioned why his answer regarding examples of a browser was wrong. His teacher said that the memo stated only one specific commercial brand was mentioned as a browser and not the others. Sadly, it reinforces Derek’s point.
What is at the heart of the issue is not just improving our education system but also providing a future generation with the necessary knowledge and skills to be producers and not just consumers in a knowledge economy that is powered by software. As Derek mentioned “We will never build a knowledge economy if the basis for it is a mystery box imported from more innovative places.”
Maths teachers are having to skim through the foundations and kids do not have the building blocks to calculate more complex expressions. The concept of a diluted literacy approach to memorize and make it easy is not empowering. It is enslaving and dooming a future generation that could really have done much better. If you have to work with the kids that come out of the system and see this year after year, you know we have a problem. The sad part is that the interventions post independence in education have really worsened an already bad situation and could have been prevented. To correct it now will need enormous will. Not from government but from citizens.
A lot of our kids need to program as it is interactive, stimulating and tactical as opposed to simply being passive visual and auditory consumers of information. Language is also a more available construct to work with as we can produce more language teachers and work with that base as a pathway. There are not as many competent maths teachers and that capacity also still needs to be built. If we introduce programming to teachers that are already use to teaching a language we can use applicable references and build that pathway. It does not mean we stop doing what we do in terms of trying to generate more maths teachers but it could also mean that if we have a two prong approach we can raise the standard of the other rather than lower it to meet the pressure to get throughput.
Set aside political agendas and just focus on one common thing – the education of our children. If you feel strongly about making a difference, please join in on our discussions, conversations and programs of action at the Software Week.
View more articles by Roderick Lim Banda.